Due-Day Polishing: 6 things to do before you hand over the final draft

(This post originally appeared here in Nov. 2011)
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You’ve worked hard all quarter getting your essay in top form. You’ve outlined. You’ve taken pages of notes. You’ve peer-workshopped. Your instructor has given you feedback – and at least 100 handouts. You revised. And revised. And revised. Today the final draft is due – but is it really done?

Don’t be too quick to hand your essay over just yet. Here are a few last-minute editing tips to get your essay as perfect as it can be.

1. Did you use spell-checker? Good. But don’t trust it. Spell-checker is great if you have misspelled a word or used incorrect punctuation (sometimes). But spell-checker doesn’t work if you’ve used defiantly instead of definitely, or their instead of there, or a semi-colon instead of a colon, or – you get the picture. One quick way to find these errors is to go to the toolbar under “Edit”; click “Find,” then type in the words you have difficulty with. It will highlight them so you can confirm you’ve used these words correctly.

2.  Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Does each paragraph focus on just one topic, or are you all over the place? See where you were beginning with the paragraph, and see where you ended up; if you went down one road and ended up on a multi-lane interstate, refocus your thoughts so the paragraph communicates one topic or point.

3.  How is your sentence variety? Do you vary the length and style to create a nice rhythm, or are sentences short and choppy? Can short sentences be combined? Do you say the same thing but in five different ways? Sometimes we spend so much time on research or MLA as we’re composing our essays that we overlook something as simple as sentence variety that can be the difference between blah and the best essay evah!

4.  Read your essay aloud to really hear the words. Reading your essay aloud is the most important thing you can do to find those difficult errors that spell-check or your peer group doesn’t catch. Read slow and deliberately. If you’ve read your essay so many times it’s too familiar, try reading your essay backward. This will slow you down and give you a different perspective on the sentences.

5.  Do you feel like you know your essay by heart? Time to take a step back. If time allows, put the essay away for a day or two. Getting some distance from your essay will give you the opportunity to read it with a fresh set of eyes.

6.  Finally, let it go. You’ve done the best you can and there comes a time when we have to let our writing go and move on. If you know you’ve done your best to make your writing all it can be, then a grade often becomes secondary to that sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when it’s complete.

What are your due-day rituals? Do you have any last-minute tips you’d like to share?

 

Quick Tips for Organizing your Research Paper

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If you’ve ever tried writing a research paper, you know that organizing the masses of information you’ve compiled can be a daunting task. If you’ve waited until the last minute to begin writing the paper (sound like you?) below are some quick tips on how you might put it all together.

Note that there is not one correct way to organize a research paper. The most important thing to consider is first your assignment guidelines. Does your instructor ask you to place your thesis at the conclusion of the introduction, or wait until you’ve set up your points of argument? Do the requirements call for a pro/con paper, a problem/solution, or another type of format? Is your audience hostile or sympathetic to your position? Although these are questions you might want to consider before you move forward, below is a basic formula for organizing the classical argument.

Title

Don’t discount the importance of a title. The title acts as an introduction to the introduction. It should reflect the content of the paper and can be a title-subtitle style, such as

Devastating Beauty: How Print Media Contributes to Negative Self Image of Teens

The title-subtitle format is effective if you want your audience to know exactly what the content of the paper will be about. In the previous example, the writer could also simply use the title Devastating Beauty, which piques the readers’ interest without giving it all away.

Introduction

The intro to your paper will offer background information about the topic, establishing common ground with the audience. Intros often contain emotional appeals to garner interest from the reader. You’ll want to introduce the problem before you state your thesis, which traditionally, comes at the end of the introduction. Hopefully you have your thesis, and it’s clear, concise, and proposes an argument.

Reason Paragraphs

Once you have your main argument or thesis claim, you must then explain the “why?” behind the argument. One easy way I teach my students to build their argument is with “because clauses.” A “because clause” answers “why?” as in the example below:

Thesis: The portrayal of young women in fashion magazines contribute to poor self-image of teens

Reason: because the images are unrealistic and unattainable.

This reason or “because” will be the basis for the first point of argument, so the next few paragraphs will contain research and support to prove this claim.

Most assignments will require at least 3 main points or reasons, but they will all follow the same pattern: expand the thesis with a reason or because clause. So a simple graphic outline of the body will look something like this:

Reason #1:   (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #1


Reason #2:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #2


Reason #3:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #3

  

Opposition: The Counter-argument

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for the claim and reasons, you’ll now introduce the antithesis or opposition. For a fair and balanced argument, you must consider what the other side believes. An audience will give more credibility to writers who offer a fair treatment of both sides, not just his or her own side. The opposition may concede a point, showing sympathy and understanding. This doesn’t weaken your argument; it actually makes it stronger if you can offer an effective rebuttal. The rebuttal is your answer to the opposition’s objections.

Opposition 1:

Some people disagree, believing that the portrayal of young women in fashion magazines actually helps improve teens’ body image (insert explanation and  information explaining this point).

Rebuttal 1:

However, recent research has shown that exposing young women to images of thin, attractive models increases body dissatisfaction and other negative feelings (Rogers).

The opposition section may counter-argue one reason, all three reasons, or the overall argument. So it might, be outlined like this:

Opposition #1
Rebuttal #1

Opposition #2
Rebuttal #2

Opposition #3
Rebuttal #3

Conclusion

Now all you have to do is bring it all home. Close the argument in a memorable and satisfying way. reinforce your thesis, offer a call to action, a warning, or a solution. This is the last opportunity to get your message to your audience, to convince them of the importance of your argument.

 

Outline

 

An informal outline of the entire process would look something like this:

Introduction (background, history, problem; conclude with thesis statement)

Reason #1 (because why?)

Reason #2 (because why?)

Reason #3 (because why?)

Opposition #1 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #1 (refute the counter)

Opposition #2 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #2 (refute the counter)

Opposition #3 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #3 (refute the counter)

Conclusion (reinforce thesis; call to action; warning)

This is only one way to organize a classical argument. Read your assignment directives and follow the guidelines carefully. Take care to develop each point fully, integrate your research carefully, and treat the opposition fairly, and you’ll find you’ll be on the way to a successful research paper.

 

Works Cited: The Basics

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If you’re writing a paper for a college English class, chances are you’ll be asked to use MLA documentation style. MLA, or Modern Language Association, is a style of documentation generally used in Humanity or Liberal Arts fields (though not always). Research sources for MLA use authorpage number for in-text citations, as opposed to the year that APA (American Psychological Association) uses. The reason for this difference is that the currency of research is of greater importance in the sciences, which usually requires APA documentation.

For MLA, writers must compile a Works Cited page at the conclusion of their essay. A Works Cited is an alphabetical list of all the sources you used in your paper. Your instructor might ask for a Works Consulted page, which is all the sources you have read in preparation for your paper, not only the ones you have referenced in the text.

Basic Format

If your essay is 10 pages long, Works Cited will be page 11. Even if the essay only falls onto the first or second line of page 10, Works Cited must begin on the following page.

The title, Works Cited, should be centered on the page. It is not necessary to bold, italicize, or enlarge the font of the title. All lines will be double-spaced, including from the title to the first entry.

Hanging Indent

If the entry is long enough to run onto a second line, a hanging indent will be used. A hanging indent is exactly the opposite of a traditional indent; instead of indenting the first line, with all subsequent lines flush left, the first line of the entry will be flush left, with all subsequent lines indented, regardless of number. The reason for a hanging indent on a Works Cited page is so a reader can easily find the source’s name or title while scanning the Works Cited page. The page will look like this:

(ex. from Purdue Owl Online)

(ex. from Purdue Owl Online)

 

 

 

 

 

To easily format for a hanging indent in MS Word, under the “Home” tab, click on the “Paragraph” arrow to open; on the right of the box, you should see “Special” with “none” as the default. Click the arrow beside “none” and “Hanging” should be the last item. If you format the hanging indent before you enter your sources, it will automatically create a hanging indent for each entry.

Other Basics

 Titles of Works

Knowing when to italicize or put quotation marks around titles of works is tricky for beginning writers. If you can just remember that small works – for instance, chapter titles found in anthologies – are placed in quotation marks; larger works – like a book or journal – are italicized. So, for instance, the journal article, “Five Fallacies of Education,” will be in quotation marks, and the journal, Harvard Review will be in italics. A newspaper article will be in quotation marks, and the name of the newspaper italicized, like this:

“Iowa Passes Same-Sex Marriage Bill.” Des Moines Register.

It gets more complicated with websites, but just remember the smaller work is placed in quotations and the larger work in italics.

Multiple Works by Same Author

It’s actually quite common to find several different articles by the same expert, so you might cite more than one work by the same author. On your Works Cited, give the author’s name in the first entry only. Every entry after the first one with the full name, type three hyphens, which stand for the name in the preceding entry.  The three hyphens, like the name, will be followed by a period. Alphabetize all entries by title. It will look like this:

 

Knopp, Lisa. Field of Vision. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1996. Print.

—. The Nature of Home: A Lexicon and Essays. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002. Print.

(ex. from http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com)

 

 

Final Thoughts

 

Students often find Works Cited pages to be a bit confusing to put together.  Always refer to your handbook or a respected website, such as Purdue Owl or Bedford St. Martin, both great resources to utilize as you work through the process of compiling your source page. Click the links below to go to their websites.

It’s always best to compile your Works Cited manually, meaning avoid the automatic citation help in MS Word and other computer-generated software, which may incorrectly format an entry if the writer fails to plug in the correct information.

For more questions about Works Cited or MLA, visit Purdue Owl or Bedford St. Martin’s.